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Clock ticking toward 2018 as court to mull redistricting questions

A three-judge panel will start mulling big redistricting questions in San Antonio on Thursday, including how rulings finding discrimination in Texas' political maps might affect the 2018 election cycle.

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A pair of federal court rulings that Texas leaders purposefully discriminated against minority voters in rejiggering congressional and state House boundaries have triggered a slew of pressing questions among politicos here:

Will Texas soon see new political maps that are friendlier to Latino and black voters and, in turn, Democrats? If so, who would draw them: the scolded Republican-led Legislature or the courts themselves? Will the maps land ahead of the 2018 elections?

A three-judge panel based in San Antonio will start wading through such questions on Thursday as lawyers for each side of the redistricting dispute return to court for a high-profile status conference.

“This hearing is a very important event in the sequence of what’s going to happen,” said Jose Garza, an attorney for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, a plaintiff in the case.

In a 2-1 March ruling, the San Antonio panel ruled that Texas lawmakers knowingly discriminated in drawing three of the state’s 36 congressional districts: CD-23, represented by Will Hurd, R-Helotes; CD-27, represented by Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi; and CD-35, represented by Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin.

And last week the same judges found fault with the 2011 state House map, finding that lawmakers intentionally diluted the clout of minority voters statewide and in districts encompassing areas including El Paso, Bexar, Nueces, Harris, Dallas and Bell counties.

Each ruling matters mightily because, if they withstand appeals, they could ultimately land Texas — which has a well-documented history of racial discrimination in elections — back on a list of states needing outside approval to change their election laws. 

More immediate questions, however, surround what the rulings mean for the 2018 elections since new district lines could affect both voters and candidates. Already, one potential U.S. House candidate — former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego — told The Texas Tribune he would consider running again for Hurd’s CD-23 seat, but perhaps only under new boundaries.

The deadline for candidates to file for March 2018 primary elections doesn’t hit until December, but the case — due to its lengthy and complicated legal history — is several steps away from yielding new maps, creating a sense of urgency for civil rights groups and others calling for such changes.

“We really don’t have a ton of time,” state Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, told the Tribune after the congressional ruling. “Because the right to vote is a fundamental right, the urgency is increased substantially.”

Those on all sides of the dispute likely want to avoid the confusion of 2012  — the year U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz scored an upset win over then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the Republican primary — when Texas was forced to delay those races.

“The court is coming up against a crunch period,” said Michael Li, a redistricting expert with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. 

The majority of judges on the San Antonio panel have clearly outlined their view of discrimination in the 2011 House maps, but neither decision required immediate changes. That’s because the state has been operating under temporary court-ordered maps drawn in 2013.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, which declined to comment for this story, has argued in court that questions about 2011 are moot since the 2011 maps are no longer in effect.

“The challenge to the old 2011 maps are not only moot but ‘a finding that racial considerations were dominant and controlling defies everything about this record,’” Paxton said following the House map ruling, referring to a bristling dissent by Judge Jerry Smith of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Civil rights groups and other plaintiffs argue that 2011’s discrimination carried over to the maps currently in use.

Nina Perales, representing the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the lawsuit, suggests the case against the 2013 congressional maps is more straightforward partly because there are fewer districts in play and also because the court’s decision more clearly identified discrimination that carried over into the new maps. For instance, the boundaries of two of its districts — Farenthold’s 27th and Doggett’s 35th — are identical to those drawn in 2011. 

“We get a better picture on the Congress decision about where the court thinks the map is still flawed,” Perales said. “We do not get a sense in the House opinion where the court thinks the 2013 map is flawed.”

But even if the court was less explicit about its view of the newer House map, Li said, the plaintiffs may have a compelling argument that it, too, should be redrawn. That's because some 2011 House districts flagged by the judges as problematic — including parts of Dallas, Tarrant, Bell and Nueces Counties— are identical on the 2013 map. 

“If they were drawn with discriminatory intent, that hasn’t changed at all,” he said.  

Abby Livingston contributed to this report. 

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • After ruling that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minorities in drawing the state's congressional map, a three-judge panel has also found fault with the state's House map.
  • The state of Texas has been on a losing streak when it comes to redistricting and voter ID laws, with federal judges repeatedly finding that the state intentionally discriminated against minorities. Whose legal advice were they following?
  • Another federal judge has ruled that Texas legislators intentionally discriminated on the basis of race when changing voting and election laws. But even if the laws change back, the state still got away with it.

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